Transformed Forgiveness

“We understand that everyone makes mistakes” was written on the walls of my classroom and now written on the walls of my home. This simple truth of humanity, so powerful and needed in times of self-contempt as well as others-contempt.

It is so easy to utter the words, I forgive you. But real forgiveness, forgiveness which comes from a changed heart has been a much more difficult thing for me to learn. For so many years, I would forgive on the surface, and tell myself I was supposed to be just fine, without realizing the effects of surface-level forgiveness on my heart.

Robotically, I can forgive. But I am learning, forgiveness is so much deeper than words.

We say we have forgiven yet still old on to bitterness, cynicism, and mistrust. Posh sayings like “forgive but don’t forget” are tangled up in our stories. These things which are the breeding ground for skewing the way we see our world. Bitterness holds on to hate. Cynicism, the faltering of hope. Mistrust, the walls which lead to isolation and loneliness.

And I am on a journey of freeing my heart from the tangled up messes of bitterness, cynicism, and mistrust.

Uttering the words, I forgive you, is simply not enough. Forgiveness is more than words, forgiveness must come from the heart. A heart that is changed, a heart, whose wounds are fully healed… or at least in the process of becoming fully healed. Transformed forgiveness takes time, it takes courage, and sometimes transformed forgiveness leaves us at the risk of loss.

On the path to transformed forgiveness, we must identify the pain and understand the wounds we carry in our own hearts. We can ask questions like: Why am I upset? What does this pain trigger in my own story?

Recently I felt wounded by a woman within my social circles. This wound was inflicted on social media, with passive aggressive words. My heart was broken. I could not understand her need to be cheeky on my personal post, I hardly know this woman, but even still, a wound was inflicted.

In my pain, I wanted to seek reconciliation. After several failed attempts, this woman was unwilling to speak with me, and I had to leave this story undone.

In the undoneness, I let the words of her comment fester. And these words then attached to the lies I so often believe about myself.

I am not good enough to be a pastor’s wife, church members will never like me, I too often say the wrong things, in the world of church, I am an outsider.

These I statements are all triggers for shame. Each I statement an opportunity for bitterness, cynicism, and mistrust to take root. Most often, when this happens I find myself withdrawing from others. When shame is triggered, I seek isolation. Shame causes me to hide.

Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” – Brene Brown

Can I forgive when things are left undone?

Sometimes, I just want those words, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” but in transformed forgiveness, I am learning it  is my responsibility not to change the offender’s heart, but instead, investigate my own.

To forget about the speck in someone else’s eye and examine the plank in my own. To take responsibility for what is true and shut down what is false. To sit in the undoneness of the wound and do the hard work of determining why this moment was painful. To recognize patterns in what wounds me. To do the courageous work of recognizing the shame triggers. To be ready to shut down lies with truth. To be ready to see myself through the lens of humanity, to apply the words from the walls of my classroom, to my own heart. We understand that everyone makes mistakes.

When we realize we are responsible for our own hearts before God, when we rid them of the deep roots of bitterness, cynicism, and mistrust; this is when we are truly free to forgive and also let go. Shame has no reign in a heart transformed by forgiveness.

In transformed forgiveness we must also learn to forgive ourselves, for our own missteps. We must include ourselves in the statement, “we understand everyone makes mistakes”. When we expect that we are human, the path to forgiveness is a road much softer on the soles of our feet. We cannot be gracious to others until we are first gracious with ourselves. The unforgiven cannot forgive.

In transformed forgiveness, sometimes we need to make our wounds known. After several years of not confronting a relative who would continuously cross my personal boundary line, I finally spoke up to make my wounds known. In transformed forgiveness, we have to be brave enough to speak up and say, when you act a certain way, it hurts me. We are not made to always be “just fine”. We are human, our hearts break and our hearts hurt.

With this relative, I needed to speak up because in my “gracious” silence, bitterness was deeply rooted in my own heart. When I finally had the courage to communicate my wounds, I also communicated clear boundaries I needed for our relationship to move forward. This resulted in another conflict left undone, but a good opportunity for me to search my own heart. And after four years of distance, my heart has been purified from those wounds, all on its own. Sometimes a tree cannot heal unless the diseased branch is pruned away. This allows a healthier one to grow in its place.

When we make our wounds known, we are always at risk of those wounds being received with love or hate. But I am learning, it is not my responsibility to control what is going on in the hearts of others. I can only be responsible for my own heart.

We must set boundaries on the path to transformed forgiveness. Once we are able to recognize our own limitations we can respect the limitations of others and not be hurt by them. In our humanity, we are free to say, no, my human heart is not called to bear all things. Boundaries are not forever. I’ve heard it said by someone wiser than I, boundaries are fences with gates. It is always healthy to set a boundary, but know that your boundary has a gate that may be opened when you are personally ready for it to open.

When we understand that to err is human, we can see ourselves and others with empathy and compassion. In transformed forgiveness, we recognize we are all on the journey of making mistakes. We are all falling down and getting back up again. Everyone is fighting their own battles. We are all on different places on the journey.

In transformed forgiveness, we understand that I am not perfect and neither are you. Seeing ourselves and others through the lens of humanity, is the birthplace of forgiveness. We all really do make mistakes. We all have our stories, our shame triggers, our lies, our Achilles heels. It is our humanity that binds us together. The lens of pride blinds but the lens of humanity binds.

We understand that everyone makes mistakes. But we are not called to always be okay with them. We are called to understand our pain and free our hearts from the tangled up messes of bitterness, cynicism, and mistrust.

This is how I am transforming how I see forgiveness. I have to simply start with me and what’s happening beneath the surface.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Romans 12:2

 

The Gospel and Casseroles

In 2006, I am a new wife in our two bedroom apartment in St. Louis, the apartment far away from everything which was once familiar to me. Though I am surrounded by nine hundred square feet of my own furniture, clothing, and my late mother’s Pflatzgraff dishes, I feel very alone. I am so overwhelmed by the unknowns of what it means to be married, what it means to live out the role of wife, the new to me role of regular church attender, and the stomach churning role of lady married to the man in the pulpit.

The furniture and picture frames which surround me look and feel familiar, but I don’t feel like I am living the life of the girl I once knew, the girl whose face is the the pictures which hang in the frames on the wall. In 2006, in a two bedroom apartment, I feel inside out and upside down. Logically I know I am in need of new friends. I know in lonliness my demons have too much power. Logic tells me I need others surrounding me to keep myself out of my own head.

My job as a first grade teacher won’t begin for a few more weeks. Michael Craddock is swamped with his studies for Summer Greek, so he is able to read the New Testament in its original language. Instead of spending another day at the apartment complex pool alone with a book or another night over a TV Tray in front of Wheel of Fortune, over a phone call, a far away sorority sister speaks truth into my life and reminds me, I am a social and (mostly) likable person. I hold onto this truth and decide I will prepare the house and a meal so Michael Craddock and I can have some new people over for dinner. I am social and mostly likable, I breathe deeply and assure myself I can make a new friend.

While my husband is studying Greek and I am trying to embrace this new role of future pastor’s wife, I also decide, I too, will try to learn something which is quite Greek to me, the art of how to make church people food; I decide I will learn how to host with casseroles.

Over the years of my life I can see how God has been gracious to slowly unravel me from perfectionism, but as new wife, in our two bedroom apartment during our seminary days, I worshipped the ideal of appearing perfect to a watching world.

That day in 2006, I spent most of the day scrubbing the house, vacuuming, dusting the picture frames which had been hanging on the walls for only a few weeks, and searching the Internet for a recipe for the perfect casserole.

In this moment, as I prepare for our company, I am operating with a skewed and warped lens for how I see myself and the world. When embracing perfection and the need to appear as if my home is perfect, I am completely joyful, happy, content, fulfilled, and strong, I can’t let people see who I really am. When embracing perfectionism, the real me is afraid to be seen so I layer on falsidies to hide my lonliness, fear of the unknown, fear of the stomach churning roles, and the insecurities. I layer the idea of looking cleaned up on the outside to protect anyone from seeing the tangled up messes which lie beneath the surface.

At this moment, similar to my husbands Greek studies, casseroles are quite Greek to me. My parents are both from the east coast and growing up I don’t recall eating many meals in the form of a casserole. For some reason, I believed, in order to appear good enough in this Greek to me role, I needed to make a casserole on this particular day. In my limited experience with people who I had met at church, the after-church-party tables were usually laden with casseroles. Pretty much anything could be made into a casserole. I was fascinated by the many different things one could add to cream of chicken soup, shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream and crushed up crackers. Broccoli, hamburger, corn, chicken, ham, taco, green beans, sweet potatoes, rice, and even a long list of breakfast items can be combined in a 9×13 casserole dish and baked at 350 degrees.

To me, knowing how to make a proper casserole was a requirment for being a good Christian wife. A requirement I assigned to myself. I believed I needed “perfect casserole maker” on the resume I was writing for myself to been seen, known, and accepted as an adequate pastor’s wife.

I had zero experience cooking a casserole and very little experience with the oven in our two bedroom apartment. I’m not the best cook, but I usually do well following a recipe. On casserole day, I followed the Internet recipe directly. Preheated the oven, greased the baking dish, cut up the chicken breasts into cubes, mix together sour cream, sherry cooking wine, cream of chicken soup, top with poppyseeds, crushed up ritz crackers, drizzle with butter. Bake uncovered for 50 minutes.

My house was cleaned, my casserole was in the oven, I had even made sweet tea and put together a salad. I was feeling so prepared and excited. I couldn’t wait to wow and impress our guests with my domestic diva-bility. Beneath the surface I desired to been seen and approved of with my perfect entertaining so much more that I actually desired vulnerable human connection. My clean house, pressed outfit, and prepared dinner protecting me from being seen as the chaotic, insecure girl I was beneath the oxy-clean surface.

When we sat down for dinner, we prayed with our new friends, and then I went to serve my casserole. The church people food I was hoping would please the crowd. As I scooped into that 9×13 baking dish, what I saw was raw chicken on my serving spoon. My casserole was not cooked perfectly. The chicken was not even edible. My thoughts begin to swirl in chaotic self-deprecating banter. How could this have happened? I followed the instructions perfectly. I had nothing else to serve and I was completely mortified. Our new friends were gracious and waited with us as I placed the casserole back in the oven. But in this moment I was so concerned with how well I could execute hosting new people in my home as a new wife, I could hardly recover from almost poisioning my guests with raw chicken.

While still holding fast to the unbelief that I need to appear to be a perfect housewife, ultimately this moment crushed me. My expectation of being a perfectly put together domestic diva and the reality that this moment was a domestic disaster collided. I didn’t know who I was in failure.

What I know now is, in this moment, I didn’t know who I was without appearing impressive to others. I am not even sure that in this moment I was able to love myself in a moment of imperfection. Even two years after hearing the gospel, that I am a sinner in need of God’s grace and mercy, which is fully given to me by the atoning blood of Jesus, even with this good news of grace and freedom, I still find myself deeply disappointed over a casserole of raw chicken. This disappointment skews the way I view myself and my world. When this happens, I recognize, I am still drinking from a broken cistern of muddy stagnant water. In this moment, the old self is still hanging on and tangled up in the new self.

Standing in my dining room laden with disappointment holding an undercooked and imperfect casserole exposed that I still needed God and perfection. In this moment, God alone was not enough for me. The undercooked casserole in my hands exposing what lies beneath, even in a time of my life when I had a daily quiet time every single morning, I am still prone to wander over to living a life of adding my efforts to the gospel.

Seven years later, my husband is the assistant pastor of youth and children’s ministries at our church in Mason, Ohio. It is February, gray, and cold in southwestern Ohio and I am eight weeks post c-section. I have three boys in my care that morning as I wave goodbye to Michael Craddock when he leaves a little earlier to get over to the church for the missions conference. I am holding my eight week old son, my seventeen month old son has just recently began to walk, and my three year and one month old son, is well three year old and quite busy. I need to be at the church in about an hour and there is a breakfast casserole in the oven. A breakfast casserole which has been assigned to all families attending the church missions conference with last names which begin with letters A-L.

In the next hour, I need to nurse my baby, change his diaper one-three times, change my seventeen month old at least once, pray no one spills anything on their church outfits, dress myself, get spit up on, redress myself, pull the casserole out of the oven, and load all four babies in the car. The casserole being the fourth baby, of course. Then show up at church looking rested, joyous, and casseroled just in time for the missions brunch.

Once again, my expectations and realities collide and I find myself running late and pulling the casserole out of the oven ten minutes before I needed to be through the doors of our church and in the sanctuary. I burn my hands moving the casserole from the oven and into the pyrex carry bag, then angrily load my babies into the minivan. Again, I find tension between the kind of woman I am and how well I can excute showing up to a church function appearing rested, joyous, and casseroled. I wrestle with the same demon of perfectionism, even after almost of decade of faithfully walking with Jesus.

Once I arrive at church, I am exhausted. The stress, the loading, and unloading of three small children in and out of the van have physically taken a toll on my eight week post c-section body. I load the kids in the double stroller, have my three year old hanging onto the edge of the stroller, and I carefully balance my breakfast casserole on the handle bar as I push the double stroller through the parking lot on that February morning. The parking lot is full of cars but emptied of people. I am late, as usual, and alone. I find myself one “how are you doing” away from tears, but I choose to hide behind an “I’m fine” smile on my face and warm cheesy casserole in my hands.

As I enter the church and place my casserole on the long table along the back wall,  I can see everyone has already gone through the food line, and my casserole will most likely will not be eaten. I can also see a packed room and in my husband’s busyness he has unintentionally forgotten to save a seat for me with him at a table near the front. I walk my older two boys to childcare and head back into the sanctuary with my newborn. I find a seat near the back next to the sound booth. It will soon be time for me to excuse myself from the sanctuary to nurse my newborn boy. There is little time for me to eat, little time for me to listen.

I am trying to hide alone in the back of the room, but God sends someone in the few moments I find myself in the sanctuary during the program, despite my efforts to hide, I am pursued. This friend asks my how I am, and I immediately begin to cry. She then asks, “Rachel, why don’t you forget about the casserole? What if you just came empty handed?”

Once again, this idea of what I have to be collides with reality and what lies beneath the surface of my heart is exposed. Even after all this time, I still don’t know who I am with empty hands. I still don’t know how to operate in imperfection. I still need to appear perfectly put together to a watching world, because deep down, I do not believe I am enough when my hands are empty. I do not believe I am enough when I can’t measure up to the expectations I have for myself as a mother, wife, friend, and pastor’s wife.

And now, in 2017, eleven years from the two bedroom apartment in St. Louis and an undercooked casserole, even though I am more experienced in baking casseroles, I don’t always sign up to bring one, and sometimes when hosting new people in my home, I serve hot dogs and potato chips from a bag.

Now I recognize this distorted desire of trying to impress a watching world. Now I find peace, freedom and rest from the yoke of slavery of impressing others, through hot dogs and showing up empty handed. Now, so many years later, this perfectionism demon still haunts me, but because I can recognize her, I also know how to battle her a little bit better.

And it is only in this new found freedom that I can see my true self, unearthed from all those false layers of wanting to impress a watching world. Now I find I am so much more free to embrace the woman God has made me to be, and truly, this draws me more closer to new friends than a perfectly cooked casserole ever could. It is only through bare-boned vulnerability, from the freedom from perfection, that we can move towards others and love well.

Walking with Jesus is a constant waltz. It is a constant putting off of the old ways, turning from them, snd walking in the new ways of Jesus. With each layer of old that unravels away, I find the woman, God is making me to be in Christ. This woman is a recovering perfectionist, social, and mostly likable by humans but deeply loved by God.

Assuming that you heard about Him and were taught in Him as the truth is in Jesus Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:21-24

When The House Is Still

I just put my youngest child on the bus. She is almost four and attending a four-day-a-week, half-day preschool for the year. I know her teacher and trust her fully, she has a friend in her classroom, she rides the bus with her two older brothers, and her bus driver has been driving my children to school since before my youngest daughter could even walk.

For all four of my children, this year, I know all of four of teachers and feel confident that each of them will be loved, nurtured, and academically challenged in their classrooms. This is the first year my mind is not clouded with worry nor occupied with fear. This is the first year I feel complete peace, joy and thankfulness about sending four of my most precious possessions on the school bus and into the hallways of the world.

With my mind not occupied with worries, what ifs, and if onlys, I find, I am sitting in a quiet house. Windows open and nothing but the sound of the wind rattling the leaves on the oak tree outside my office window.

For a moment I let the memories of the last eight and a half years come to mind amidst the rattling leaves. The noise of newborn cries, toddler tantrums, the sound of the pantry door constantly opening and closing. The messes of spit up, baby food crusted in the highchair, arms and legs covered in Crayola marker, legos and matchbox cars all over the stairs. The fierce battles on the bottom step as I discipline each of them and fight to get to their hearts. The moments I hold them, rock them, pray with them. The moments I open a book to read to them and find four kids, all piled up right in my lap, craving snuggles, connection, and the need to find themselves caught up in a story. The moments when their four personalities captivate me and I find myself caught up in their little life stories.

I have dreamed of this day over the last eight and a half years like many mothers behind me and before me. This moment. The moment when my house would not feel turned inside out and upside down. The moment when the house would be still. The moment when I felt my children would be secure and confident enough to embrace the world without me by their side. The moment when I could entrust their little hearts and lives into the hands of others who are reliable and able to nurture them and teach them alongside me.

And oh how quickly this day has come. Everyone tells you the house will be still soon enough but amidst the chaos you never believe the day of a still house will truly come. But somehow, the day is here. Today, right now, my house is still for a few hours.

And I have a choice. Transitions always seem to lead me to a place of nostalgia and wishing back what I once had before. When the house is still I can hold on to a ghost of the past or I can choose to look back at these last eight and a half years, with contentment, knowing God was writing a story for us amidst the messes, the noise, and chaos to get to this place. I can embrace a new season, with thankfulness because I am confident that God grows us and gives good things to be nostalgic about in every new season. When the house is quiet I can reminisce of the years gone by or dream big about the things which are to come.

When the house is still there are so many possibilities and so many opportunities to wish and wait on a Good God who has been faithfully writing a story in each season for all of us. I am thankful and changed by the memories I have from an inside out and upside down house, but as I still here in a still and quiet house, I look forward, with eager expectation to see what God will do in a new chapter of our family story. God is always working and He is always able.

Screams of Agony

Once, a younger Facebook friend of mine who lived in a home without young children wrote a news feed post that read something like,

“Dear neighbors, are your children screaming because they are dying?”

Often as my own four children howl agonizing screams each evening I recall this post and I think about what the neighbors passing by each evening may think I am doing to cause my children to yell these similar screams of agony.

I’ve decided to share a few of these reasons with you:

  1. The chicken and cheese rolled up inside a tortilla last night were instead served over white rice and baked with additional cheese, corn, and Fritos this evening. Agony.

2. My child has to take a bath. And also has to decide between a bath or a shower. Agony.

3. Someone passed someone on the stairs. Double agony. And biting and scratching.

4. The water is too hot. Agony.

5. My child has to actually have their hair washed in the bath. The soap-sudding and rubbing messes up their hair style. Agony.

6. The water and soap from the shower are touching a completely healed boo-boo on my child’s knee. Agony.

7. When my child’s hair is rinsed with water, the hair must be smoothed down straight. Completely straight. If one strand of hair is crooked… agony.

8. The water in the shower is now getting cold because it took my child too long to get their body under the nozzle. Agony.

9. When it is time to dry off. My children are so cold. So cold. So they are screaming and crying. In agony.

10. If you accidentally towel dry my child’s hair, this messes up their perfect, completely straightened hair style. Agony.

11. If daddy dresses a child instead of mommy or vice versa. Agony.

12. The completely healed boo-boo will hurt if pajamas touch it. Agony. Must slide pajamas on carefully without touching completely healed boo-boo or I will ensue more agony.

13. I brushed my daughters hair. Agony.

14. I picked out the wrong pajamas. Agony.

15. I am trying to breathe and remain calm. My husband and I are laughing amidst this agony. We suggest that these children of ours may be tired and need to go to bed. Agony. They are not tired. What were we thinking?

16. We negotiate with books. We hug them. Cope with them. Tell them they will feel better in the morning once they calm their hearts and go to sleep. It is the two youngers who are in agony. My husband reads to them while I make their warm milk. (I still warm milk for a five and three year old-I am in agony.)

17. The milk is too hot. My three year old likes it warmed at 40 seconds and then she prefers I add one ice cube. The omission of the ice cube ensues agony as well as adding an additional ice cube. Agony. The milk temperature is not right.

18. I forgot the kiss pattern is four kisses and four hugs. Not four kisses and three hugs. (I think he just didn’t feel the last one.) Agony.

All in the space of ninety minutes. Eighteen reasons why you may hear screams of agony coming from my home. No, my children are not dying. My husband and I are simply trying to feed them, bathe them and tuck them into bed. With love.

What Are you Afraid Of?

My blonde haired boy with the gapped-tooth grin stands on the edge of the diving board. This is the hundredth or so time he has climbed the ladder, walked his Barney Rubble like feet down the textured white board and stood with his toes dangling off the edge ready to jump into the deep refreshing waters beneath him.

Each time he reaches the edge of the diving board he considers this act of faith. As he reaches the edge he wonders if the unknown waters below will consume him and he wonders if he can trust in his previous swim training. A hundred or so times over, my blonde haired boy has done an about face after weighing his options, letting the fear of the unknown consume him instead.

diving-board-1.jpg

Fear clouds the truth about the waters below and whether or not they will consume him.

Fear prevents him from remembering the strong swimmer he has become.

Fear skews the lens through which he views his world.

I go to him. In my flesh I am frustrated for him. I know he can in fact swim. I know he is letting fear overcome him. In my flesh I want to fix it for him. I want to accelerate the process. I want him to overcome this fear in my timing.

I ask him, “What are you afraid of?”

He replies to me he is afraid of “the drowning”. My blonde-haired boy with the gapped tooth grin has given his big fear a big definite article.

My flesh overcomes me and in this parenting moment on the side of the pool I list how my blonde haired boy should feel instead of entering into the dark with him. In my flesh I see his fear with a definite article too.

Beside the pool I remind my son of truth. I remind him of the hundred or so times his has jumped off the edge of the pool into deep waters and how he swam in them well. I want for him to overcome this so badly, I miss the opportunity to be vulnerable and speak my fears to him. I see the problem and I fail to see my son as a person standing before me. I forget we are both human and a fail to remember the times when I too have stood on the edge of fear, uncertain whether the waters below would consume me.

Times when I stood on the edge of uncertainty and failed to trust in a God who promises he is with me and faith in the truth that because God holds me, the waves will not consume me.

When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2)

Times when fear of the unknown provided a skewed lens to see The Blessed Controller cleary.

Times when fear skewed my own lens for how I viewed my world, when I too gave my fear a definite article.

Pema Chodron defines compassion as “knowing your darkness well enough that we can sit in the darkness with others. It is never a relationship between the wounded and the healed. It is a relationship between equals.”

So I wonder, as a parent, do I understand my own darkness well enough to sit in the darkness with my children? Am I able to access my big fears, the big fears with the definite articles and remember what it feels like to have my toes dangling over the edge, uncertain whether or not what lies beneath me or before me will consume me? Can I remember when I too have failed to trust in my own training and the times God has shown up for me along the way?

As a parent can I extend compassion and patience in the same way God extends his abundant grace and mercy to me? How many times I have faced uncertainty with unbelief and fear even though God in his word says fear not more than a hundred times over. God is a God of compassion who sits with us and pursues us even when our hearts are pulled towards fear and unbelief.

Oh how I want to parent with patience, compassion, unending mercy and grace. Oh how I want to see my blonde haired boy with toes dangling off the edge and instead of being quick to see his problem, I want to see his heart. Oh how I desire to parent with this kind of compassion.

Eventually my blonde haired boy will jump into the waters beneath him once his faith and his trust become the faith and the trust and when the faith and the trust make the fear seem like a small shadow in comparison to them. Until then, I desire to sit in the darkness with him. I desire to be human alongside him. I desire to pray alongside my blonde haired boy with the gapped tooth grin that we both would overcome unknowns and uncertainties together because God promises He is with both of us.